It’s a work week in Boston, and for the first time in the nearly three years since I arrived I’ve woken up with no job to go in to, no commuter mass to join. It is a very strange feeling, and it made me reflect on the person I was when I first came from California all those years ago. Something feels different now, and I hadn’t stopped to consider what that might be until now, when I actually have some time…the whole summer in fact…to think it over. I took the train in to downtown Boston all the same on Monday, this time as a tourist. I missed the familiar bustle of commute hour of course, but since I didn’t wake up early enough for that, I played at reading the commuter newspaper and it helped me maintain a sense of normalcy as I faced a work-less week ahead. I thought I would head to the waterfront near the Aquarium but I ended up near Haymarket and Faneuil Hall. I stumbled on a little park fountain with a labyrinth of stones meandering out from the center where a word was carved at each end. I was so afraid of the week ahead because the last time I was alone and jobless in Boston I gave myself a hard look and hated who I had become. Now, three years later I was standing accidentally right on “SCIENCE” and I had to laugh a little. My Boston journey had both started and ended with this word, and just like the grass between the stones it has been a meandering trip full of growth.
Boston is the perfect city to grow up in, especially if you’re already an adult. There was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and what I actually did all the time-I would constantly make lists of ideas and places I wanted to go without actually doing them, like unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions year round. I was shy, insular, and afraid of just going out and doing something without someone else to do it with me, except I didn’t know anyone in Boston. Three years ago I would have let that keep me inside and gone stir crazy. But Boston has a way of coaxing you out, with it’s big city thrills and small city feel. The ubiquitous and affordable public transportation enabled small but exciting explorations, which whet my appetite for more ambitious outings. It only took me three whole years of mixing failure, success, and self-interpretation to finally feel like a self sufficient, independent, and useful human being.
The economy was bad and I was deathly afraid of being unemployed and 3,000 miles from home, so I accepted the first job I was offered despite knowing how little it improved my future career goals and just hoped everything would work itself out. First mistake. I came with big dreams, naive ambition, but I had a passive approach to life. I had this idea of breaking in to the world of science by chance, like I would meet someone influential who would see the potential in me, and they would convince a graduate selection committee that I was worth the risk. That was my second mistake. No one but me could convince a selection committee, and no one but me could fight for my future. The fight was conspicuously absent from my application, and it was obvious I was looking for an escape from my situation, not for a five-year research commitment. I was so dismissive that I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for a rejection (or five), and like everything that goes wrong when you’re young it felt like the end of the world. I was now forced to look straight at the dead end job I hoped to amicably ignore and instead deal with the consequences. I had to be proactive and work for something better. It was a struggle to stay positive everyday, after all it seemed my grand attempt at venturing out of my hometown and “making it” was failing miserably. No! Don’t think like that!
So I decided to start by taking a hard look at what I really wanted, not at what I would compromise for because I had lost faith in myself. I wanted to work at MIT the most, and then I wanted to go to a good graduate school. I had applied for one MIT job while still in my undergraduate and flopped in the interview. I would try hard not to flop this time. I still didn’t believe in myself, especially since being rejected from graduate school and told I wasn’t doing anything right in my last job, but I was going to fake the confidence temporarily at least. I was prone to qualifiers: saying yes I did that, BUT. I was so self-conscious about my failures I let that bleed into everything else, even my triumphs and accomplishments. The result was everything I did felt downplayed and unenthusiastic. Not great when you are looking for a job. So I armored myself with solid preparation and a fact-filled interpretation of my own abilities. Sticking to the facts, no qualifiers.
Once I landed the job it was time to do that grad school thing again. It’s never easy to look at something you sucked at in the face and do it again. Here were the facts: I hadn’t honest to god tried because I was afraid if I REALLY tried and then failed, that would mean my best isn’t good enough. If I sort of tried I could save my pride by thinking I just didn’t live up to my potential. That was something wasn’t it? No, putting it all on the line is hard, but that’s what makes it worth it.
So I went all out…overboard. I took a night class to get more experience in the field I would apply to, I re-took my GRE plus an extra subject GRE, I applied to eleven graduate schools within a stone’s throw from Boston, and I wrote a grant for a graduate fellowship even though I’d never written a grant before, all while working my full time job. I just put faith in myself to succeed in a last ditch effort and threw it all out there.
Eight interviews, seven offers, and two graduate fellowships later, I’m exhausted and taking the summer off. I’m scared all over again for this new experience of graduate school since I don’t have good luck with first go-arounds, but this time I think I feel good enough about myself to know my limits and how to get there. It seems I am nothing but relentless and persistent, and the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed…” definitely applies to me. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you can always try to get what you want, and it may turn out better than you expect.